Achatz said that Wylie Dufresne–perhaps the most technical-minded of the young American chefs following Adrià–would probably make a paste of sole mixed with transglutamase, to be extruded into spaghetti-like noodles, and serve it in a classic sauce garnished with grapes: “His manipulation would be the dish.” Homaro Cantu, of the Chicago restaurant Moto–perhaps the most direct disciple of Carême in the current group–would first give the diner a picture of sole Veronique on a piece of paper that was meant to be eaten (as are a lot of his menus; he uses an ink-jet printer to spray edible inks of his own devising onto paper made of soybeans and cornstarch). Then he would set before the diner a patented superinsulating polymer box preheated to 350 ºF. A waiter would remove the lid to reveal a top layer of carbonated grape, made by putting whole fruits into a carbonation canister; the waiter would take away that layer and reveal steamed sole that had been cooking at the table. For the last course, the waiter would pour the fish-steaming broth into a bowl. Playing with the image and deconstructing the dish would be the Cantu hallmarks.
Achatz himself would concentrate on scent and texture, poaching the fish in a tepid water bath in a vacuum-sealed plastic bag–the “sous vide” process many chefs now swear by to give meat, fish, and some vegetables a creamy consistency. He would put grape juice into the bag with the fish, to infuse the essence of its flavor into the flesh. Then he would capture the aromas of classic fish sauce–vermouth, tarragon, fish stock–either in an aromatic pillow or in a vapor sprayed around the diner when the fish was served. He might use an industrial thickener to make a kind of fruit gum of cooked-down white-grape juice, to alter the texture and intensify the flavor of the grapes. Three approaches meant to make the diner think about flavor and the whole experience of dining in a new way.
And, however first-rate the ingredients, three approaches designed to draw attention to the bravura and originality of the chef. This is where the new approach diverges from Slow Food, where the author is Nature. Achatz’s own divergence from the American nouvelle cuisine of his mentor marks an interesting irony: his aggressive use of technology is often in the service, as is Keller’s use of classical technique, of great emotion–the odd techniques and sheer novelty are only its most obvious manifestations. The cool bloodlessness of his kitchen–and, it must be said, of the chef himself: tall, lean, and pensive, with red hair, finely etched features, and freckles that underscore his youth–produces food meant to celebrate and open up the realm of the senses.
Executive chefs usually take a hand in actual preparations only when they see a cook put something awry. That approach would be understandable in a restaurant with 16 cooks and dinners that regularly feature two dozen courses. But on the nights when I visited the Alinea kitchen, Achatz took an active role, preparing each plate of “shellfish sponge”–a dish with what looked like a soft white meringue cloud in the center, garnished with thin, horizontally sliced mussels and clams. Watching Achatz choose each delicate shellfish slice and spoon out celery granité and two kinds of sauce was like watching a surgeon–an effect heightened by his somber mien, the immaculate white cutting boards, and the C-fold white paper towels set before the plates like surgical napkins.